Hundreds stood together on the night of November 14 in Hong Kong following the catastrophic terror attacks in Paris earlier that day, for which ISIS has claimed responsibility, in response to French airstrikes in Syria and insults to Islam’s prophet.
The gathering, held at the Sun Yat Sen Memorial Park, was titled ‘Not Afraid’, echoing the spirit of the Charlie Hebdo marches in January, and had been organized and shared with thousands of people through Facebook in the short span of several hours that afternoon.
The attacks took place on the night of November 13 in Paris and have claimed more than 120 innocent lives across multiple locations including at the Bataclan Concert Hall, the Stade de France, in two restaurants and on streets.
News of the incident spread like wildfire throughout the day across social media, triggering trends of viral hashtags such as #portesouvertes (open doors), profile picture filters in the colours of the French flag, and signs and symbols of solidarity such as the image of the Eiffel Tower against the peace symbol.
That night at ‘Not Afraid’, members of the French community in Hong Kong joined in prayer and sang the national anthem with a minute of silence at 8:30pm, to voice their solidarity and support for friends and loved ones back home.
Hundreds of candles lined the fountain at the harbor front, along with posters depicting symbols and slogans that had swamped Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other media platforms for the larger part of the day.
The organizer of ‘Not Afraid’ Emilie Guillot, who also led ‘Je suis Charlie’ in Hong Kong after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris this January, told LP in an exclusive interview that the objective of the event was not to “threaten or fight back”, but rather to “spread the message and show support.” She attributed the tremendous turnout to the waves of emotion and shock that had taken the people by storm. “People are very confused and sad,” she said, “and they just want to show that in the moment.”
Earlier that night, HKU’s president and vice chancellor Peter Mathieson reached out to the HKU community in a message condemning terrorism and affirming that our exchange students in Paris were safe. The university also extended support to the French exchange students at HKU, a number of who shared their feelings on the sensitive topic with LP throughout the night.
Celia Dumont and Flora Obertelli, French exchange students at HKU, said that the “scariest part” was waking up to the news in Hong Kong, but not knowing if something had gone terribly wrong back home. “You are crying but you can’t even call because they are asleep,” Celia pointed out.
As young adults living away from home during stressful times, the girls were grateful for the support they had found in the French community in Hong Kong. Flora said that it was heartwarming that French people stand together but felt it was unfortunate that it took such a tragedy for such solidarity to take place.
Despite the sense of “French-ness” and strength that such a gathering brought, Flora observed, “This might be the Hong Kong way, because it does not happen this way in Paris.” In Paris, she told LP, people would be marching instead of standing in the same place. Furthermore, she noted, “People talk and sing and scream and cry when this kind of thing happens in Paris, but here it’s silent.”
Lancelot Chardonnet, who is also on exchange from France, expressed his sadness and incomprehension at “seeing how [his] hometown has changed.” Although he and his family were not directly affected by the atrocity, he had heard plenty of accounts of how it had impacted those around him, including a friend of a friend who had been at the scene outside the concert venue.
Joséphine de Leusse, another exchange student from Paris, acknowledged the stunning effects of social media “to spread support and organize massive gatherings,” but reeled at its potential as a double-edged sword when used “to spread racist messages, stigmatizing Muslim people.” She recognized that terrorist attacks are the doings of extremists and regrets that so many are pointing fingers at Islam as a religion, including innocent refugees and Muslims living in France who are now in danger of being labeled as terrorists.
After the event had ended and most attendees returned home, a small group of young Parisians working in Hong Kong remained by the fountain mulling over the long day that had passed. When approached by LP, they confessed that although they were relieved to have been outside the city on the fateful night, they would much rather have been back with their families. “These are the times you don’t want to be in Hong Kong,” one young man noted. “You want to be home so if something had happened, at least you’d be together.”
They also noted that the attacks were a particularly harsh blow because they occurred in places they would frequent “on any normal Friday or Saturday night.” While talking about seeing the carnage sites on TV, the group struggled to agree on whether the familiarity of the places made the disaster seem more or less “real.” One girl compared the events to there occurring “an attack in LKF.”
Though the young French at the event were in the same vein, fuelled by a mutual anger and hatred towards the people who had done this, the French Consulate General in HK Eric Berti was at odds with this general sentiment.
Berti told LP that despite the way events had panned out, terrorism is ultimately a “complex problem” and a case where fire cannot be used to fight fire. He said that it is crucial to instill and retain hope in the minds of all young people across the world, including the perpetrators of the attacks, rather than maintain a distorted view of a world where problems are solved through violence.